Secret’s of New York: Staten Island’s Boat Graveyard

Posted on March 23, 2011

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Words and Photos by Nick Childers

      After about a 2-hour trek from Bed-Stuy to the southwest corner of Staten Island via public transit, I found myself in the small and quiet neighborhood of Rossville. Located directly between a juvenile detention center and the old ‘Fresh Kills’ New York City dump, its scenery is an eyesore by all means.

It is a place with a sad history of transformation from an old humble farm and ferry-port town to an odd corner of the city that has been scarred from years of industrial pollution. After years of aggressive land development, an endless array of prefab suburban houses now line Rossville’s streets with the industrial Jersey shore coming into view just north across the mucky Arthur Kill water straight. But don’t let this bleak landscape fool you. Just around the corner of Arthur Kill Road, on the shore behind inconspicuous sheet-metal walls, lies one of the East Coast’s biggest boat-graveyard. There, an amazing and diverse collection of boats full of history lay scattered, rotting away in their final resting place.

Getting into the area is quite simple, however, trespassers beware: this is still a functioning scrap yard open six days a week. Witte’s scrap yard, formally known as “Donjon Iron and Metal Scrap Processing Facility” are the keepers of this boat yard and have been for a while.

According to a 2004 article from Marinelink.com, the shipyard opened in 1964 when J. Arnold Witte Sr. started his salvage business. He soon found his harbor in Rossville overflowing with all kinds of neglected boats from various New York harbors and docks at a time when the marine salvage industry was just beginning to flourish.With tall eight-foot sheet-metal walls concealing it’s approximately 2,000 foot-long ship salvage yard, it’s easy to understand how very few know that it is one of the biggest marine salvage yards in New York and the East Coast.

Cara Dellatte has been a life-long resident of Rossville since the 1980s. She describes going past the scrap yard almost every day on her route to school or work. “No one really knew how big it actually was. It’s been there all my life but no one [in the neighborhood] ever cared to check what was behind the big metal walls.” Cara now works at the Staten Island Museum archives where she is just now beginning to learn the history of her neighborhood through the archives she handles.

HISTORY OF ROSSVILLE

There was a time when Rossville wasn’t the polluted landscape it is today, a place of natural beauty and thriving farmland. Earliest known settlement of the area is thought to be around the mid 1700s by Peter Winant, the son of Pieterse Wynant, one the earliest known permanent settlers of Staten Island in 1661. At one point, this area was known for its fin and shell fishing, summer time crab catching and sand-like soil ideal for growing berries. The water was even safe to swim in then. Before being renamed to Rossville in 1837, the area was known as Blazing Star after an old and popular tavern located near where the salvage yard is now. This location served as a crucial ferry port for horse-drawn carriages going to and from Philadelphia, New Jersey and other locations along the coast up until the late 19th century. That location also included the Rossville Inn, and at some point around 1830, an elaborate wooden mansion modeled after the Windsor Castle in England was built for Colonel William E. Ross as his estate.

It would come to be known as the Ross Castle and would eventually inspire the renaming of the town from Blazing Star to Rossville.It was demolished soon after industries began moving in. Industrialization of the area gradually started around 1865 when a palm oil factory was built where the shipyard is now. From then on, the factory and its surrounding area would be a host to different industries such as the production of dental instruments. The factory and its lots would be abandoned until bought by the Witte family to become a scrap yard.

Remnants of the abandoned graveyard, Blazing Star Burial Ground, serve as proof of how neglected Rossville’s history has become. Located just east of the boat yard and next to Arthur Kill Road, the small patch stays hidden by a concrete road barrier on the side of the road. It was laid down as a family burial ground containing 41 bodies of relatives of the founders of that area. The oldest grave stone there dates to 1751. Standing in the middle of the site facing north, you will see the east end of the boat grave yard and a pathway leading to it. Today, almost no relatives of the founding families of Rossville live there and pollution has effectively driven out fishing and farming.

THE WRECKED SHIPS

The ships serve as imported objects of history in a place with its own forgotten history. Local Staten Island amateur historian, Tina Kaassmann Dunn, says how interest by locals began over “40 years ago [when friends] would silently glide around the wrecks in a canoe on sleepy Sunday mornings when no one was watching, just to look at them up close.” Today, the ships’ identities still mostly remain unknown, yet some have been recognized as to having a greater part in history.

Perhaps one of the most famous ships forgotten amongst the rotting and rusting is the Abram S. Hewitt (1903-1958), the last coal burning FDNY rescue boat to be in operation of its fleet. At about 117’ long, 25’ tall and 10’ wide, it was part of an impressive fleet of New York’s fireboats. On June 15th 1904, the Hewitt was involved with rescuing and extinguishing a fire aboard the PS General Slocum, a large paddle-steam ship holding about 1,400 German-American passengers on their way to a picnic at Eatson Neck, Long Island. The ship caught on fire about an hour into its trip and tragically killed an estimated 1,021 people, mostly women and children, with only 321 survivors. The event later came to be known as the “General Slocum tragedy” and was the worst loss of life in New York City until September 11th, 2001.

Amongst the rest of the unknown tug boats and cargo ships are two US Navy Submarine Hunters built during WWII; yet one of them, PC-1264 is well known as being one out of the only two all African American crew ships during WWII.

It ended up at Don Jon’s after the US Navy began selling damaged ships from WWII to scrap yards along the coasts in order to save space in their base ports. According to US Naval records, the crew of PC-1264 and their performance helped convince the Navy to integrate blacks with the white sailors. Missions included escorting battle and cargo ships from its former base in Tottenville, Staten Island to places such as Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, The Falkland Islands in Argentina and eventually dispatched to fight in the Pacific after VE- DAY. The history of the crew and the ship would go down in African-American history as a watershed point for racial integration within the US military.

Today, the fate of the Rossville shipyard is the same as it always has been: It is forgotten and slowly rotting away. Such a historical site is from an age old enough to be alluring but young enough to be considered just another place. The real tragedy, though, seems to be the transformation of surrounding Rossville from a utopian farming town to a quite, urbanized corner of the city.

Perhaps not all abandoned places should be recognized for the sake of mystery but it’s always sad when history is ignored. The ever-changing face of New York is easy to notice in places such as Time Square but it’s the remote corners of a mecca, such as Rossville and its boat yard that tells the story of humanity through rotting boats and rusting docks.

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Credits: Article and photographs- Nick Childers, Editor and Supervising Professor- Eleanor Bader,  Special thanks to the Staten Island Museum Archives and staff, Cara Dellate, Tina Kaasmamann Dunn, Donjon Iron and Metal Scrap Processing Facility and The Friends of Abandon Cemeteries with their booklet, ‘Blazing Star Burying Ground’. This is part of an independent study class at Pratt Institute.

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